NHL players know season played in pandemic’s shadow will present challenges

Geoff Ward predicted at the start of training camp that, despite all the precautions, the NHL would likely see COVID-19 insidiously find its way into locker rooms as the league attempts to play an un-bubbled season in the teeth of the pandemic’s second wave.

Even still, the head coach of the Calgary Flames probably didn’t expect four teams to be impacted by the coronavirus this quickly.

The Dallas Stars, Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks have either closed their facility, held players out of practice or cancelled scheduled team activities since Friday because of issues related to the coronavirus.

Dallas saw six players and two staff test positive for COVID-19 before locking its doors, and Columbus kept some members of its roster off the ice for a day, while Pittsburgh and Vancouver cancelled workouts due to potential exposure.

The NHL resumed its pandemic-delayed 2019-20 season inside tightly controlled bubbles over the summer, keeping the virus at bay for more than two months without a positive test. But while there are plenty of health and safety protocols in place — daily testing, masks, physical distancing, rules about where players can and can’t go — the 2021 campaign won’t be that.

“Whether it be college football, the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball … we’ve seen that the virus has been able to sort of get in there,” Ward said. “What is going to happen with your team health-wise is going to be something that we’re going to have to deal with.”

The NHL’s 31 clubs will only play against six or seven opponents in re-aligned divisions to cut down on travel and potential exposure, while time on the road will either be spent at the hotel or arena to protect players, coaches, staff and the public.

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The newly formed North Division consisting of the league’s seven Canadian teams won’t cross the border because of the 14-day quarantine requirements for non-essential travelers, and no U.S.-based franchise will be coming the other way.

“If you respect the people around you, you do the right things,” Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said of the protocols. “We know how contagious [the virus] can be. You’ve got to think past your selfish self and say, ‘If I break protocol, if I cheat the system here, if I do this, I do that, how many people am I putting in jeopardy?’

‘Onus on everyone’ to avoid risky situations

 “I’m talking about teammates, your teammates’ families. It’s going to be all about respect.”

Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie agreed the onus is on everyone to stay away from risky situations.

“It’s really just another type of commitment to each other,” he said.

But even if the rules are strictly followed, there’s a far greater chance of the virus finding a way through when comparing the current situation — case numbers continue to rise on both sides of the border — to the summer when the league walled itself off from the rest of the world.

“There’s no 100 per cent, foolproof way,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. “We are still getting on airplanes; we are still going to have exposure. It’s just doing the best you can to mitigate that risk.”

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During a video media availability on Monday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said “it would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play” this season. 2:54

With the season set to begin Wednesday, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said teams that keep COVID-19 out of the dressing room will have a competitive advantage. Dallas, for example, has already seen its first two regular-season contests of the 56-game sprint through May 8 postponed, while the NBA is dealing with major issues less than three weeks into its schedule.

“Any time you have to remove players from your group, you’re at a disadvantage,” Keefe said. “There’s lots of reasons for us to remain diligent.”

Added Flames captain Mark Giordano: “That’s a big threat and a big scare for teams: the virus getting into your locker room and shutting you down.”

Toronto defenceman Jake Muzzin said all it took was turning on the TV to see how COVID-19 impacted football. The NFL’s Denver Broncos were forced to start a receiver at quarterback in late November due to an outbreak, while several big names or key position groups on other rosters were sidelined at various points.

“Some of the best teams in the league have followed [protocols] the best, and their record shows,” Muzzin said. “It’s going to be an important part of this season, to stay focused on that and be smart with how you go about your day.”

Full team meetings prohibited

In short, one slip up could have disastrous consequences.

“If you make some bad choices, potentially it could impact your club,” Ward said before comparing hockey to what happened with the Broncos: “Is that the same situation with goaltenders? What could happen to a power-play unit?”

Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said because of physical distancing measures, the only time his players are currently all together is on the ice and before going out for practice.

“We’re not allowed to have full meetings,” he said. “We’re not allowed to have full workouts in the gym.

“Everybody’s trying to do their part.”

But even with everything in place, Vegas Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said it will still be a “tremendous challenge” for teams in 2021.

“Something we know 10 months into the pandemic is the virus shows up everywhere,” he said. “Travel is a prime situation where that can happen … the hotels and the eating areas and the locker rooms.

“All of those things are going to put some risk into what we do.”

Ward expected curveballs across the league — just maybe not quite this quickly.

“There’s all kinds of things that potentially could happen,” Calgary’s bench boss said. “We’ve got some sort of plan in terms of how to deal with it.

“But until it really happens, we’re not going to know.”